Photography by Caleb Plowman for City Arts
The quick success of newcomer Satellite Coffee and the hair salon downstairs has a lot to do with the passion for excellence of a colorful group of unlikely businesspeople.
You would never ask a new girlfriend to wear an old girlfriend’s lingerie, says Pat Brown. The same goes for asking one baker to use another’s recipes.
But that’s what he did when Julie Rex came into his boutique café on a recent summer evening. Brown is co-owner of Satellite Coffee Company on Division Street in Tacoma’s Stadium District. He had arranged a business meeting with Rex, owner of Corina Bakery, to discuss a topic very serious to both of them — scones.
“I don’t want any more dead bodies in the trunk before this thing is over,” Brown said to Rex from behind his register counter.
Like the Stumptown coffee the café pours, scones had become a Satellite signature. A few weeks earlier, however, their creator had quit. With the scone’s departure, something special had gone and, more to the point, a significant amount of the shop’s revenue. In a city where bloggers carry on about the consistency of the buttercream frosting on their cupcakes, the scone’s disappearance had caused a stir.
The café is compact but cozy.
Now Brown and Rex were auditioning replacements. Between them, on an ivory-colored plate, sat a pair of scones — one blueberry, one butter. A loyal Satellite customer with a recipe close to the originals had baked them, though she couldn’t provide the large, steady supply Satellite needed. Disregarding his own lingerie analogy, Brown was hoping that Rex would try on this recipe and bake scones for Satellite.
Corina sells its own scones and supplies Satellite with most of its other baked goods. But if you’ve ever driven past Satellite at two a.m. and seen Brown’s car in the parking lot with the lights still on inside, you know he only wants things exactly his way. Satellite Coffee is just three hundred square feet but every inch is custom made, outfitted in wood and chrome, with a ’60s space-themed aesthetic.
The stand-in scones, although more spongy than crumbly in texture, were impeccable, remarkably similar to the old ones. “They’re OK,” Rex said, pinching a small sample from each. “I don’t taste almond in them. Your old scones had almond.”
“Your scones are good,” Brown told Rex. “But people come in, they look in the pastry cabinet, they get mad and they leave.”
So much for flattery.
Satellite, only open for ten months, is still the comparatively new kid on the block in Tacoma’s burgeoning coffee scene. It followed on the heels of Supernova Hair and Tattoo, a rock ’n’ roll hair salon and tattoo parlor located in the larger part of the building, below Satellite. (Supernova. Satellite. Get it?)
An example of the rare art of plaster cast tattooing.
The two businesses share a space and a group of owners who aren’t your stereotypical entrepreneurs. Heavily tattooed and pierced, Ron Heathman, Pat Brown, Donny Hales and Jana Lencioni are rock ’n’ roll royalty. Heathman and Hales play in bands that tour nationally — The Supersuckers and Zeke, respectively — and Brown has been in a number of successful bands as well.
Seeing them mix with the people who traffic their businesses — North End mothers and young Stadium District families, hipsters and college students, tie-wearing professionals and clinicians from the nearby hospitals — is an experience out of the ordinary. Even more astounding is to see that blend of people, as rich and diverse as the coffee varietals Satellite sells, frequenting the same businesses.
Part of the reason it works is the owners’ magnetic personalities. Brown, especially, who minds the store most often while Heathman and Hale are out touring, is something to witness. Often dressed in a black shirt and ball cap, he has some size left over from days of power lifting. His gruff beard and almost combative personality don’t help the fact that, upon first impression, he seems like someone you’d dread meeting in a dark alley. What gives him away is his thick-rimmed glasses and the eyes behind them that intently read you and carefully consider everything you say.
Any cliché notions, however, quickly melt the minute Brown, 29, starts talking about coffee. It’s instantly obvious — the encyclopedic knowledge of espresso; how he pushes his baristas to pull the truest shots — that he’s obsessed with building a business that offers only the best.
“I’d rather dump them down the drain,” Brown declares. That’s why so much coffee gets thrown away at Satellite: to make sure every customer gets perfect espresso. It can drive wait times at Satellite toward tedious, but it’s this attention to detail that’s earned the shop an ardent following.
“This is the place that lets us indulge in our snobbiness,” says Scott Seely, who works for a nonprofit that helps adults go back to school. He’s a convert, one of many who, through their association with Satellite, have had their lives ever-so-slightly enriched by the elevation of coffee from daily indulgence to small-time obsession.
About once a week Seely comes in to pick up a bag of Stumptown. At the time of this interview, he was purchasing an Indonesian Sumatra, called Blue Batak, which grows at an elevation of between twelve hundred and sixteen hundred meters and evokes the flavors of sweet blackberry and cedar. He takes his coffee home and grinds it in the morning. He and his wife, Jen, enjoy it in a French press.
The Seelys are exploring the tastes of Indonesia, but so far their favorite blends have come from Africa. They’ve yet to find something they’re in love with from Central America, but they haven’t given up hope. Such thoughtfulness about coffee is fairly new for them. It began with visits to Satellite and the counsel of Brown and his crew of baristas, who are always willing to stop what they are doing and talk beans when the opportunity to indoctrinate arises. “They seem to want to educate people,” Seely says.
Standing at the back wall, where the coffee varietals are kept, is like standing in the parking lot of a car dealership. Written on each bag are the technical specs and at one’s disposal is the knowledge of a Satellite barista who’s been trained in aspects of the business that range from how coffee is handpicked off the shrub to how to make perfect cappuccino foam.
Barista (and artist) Zach Marvick
But even if you’re not looking to gain a PhD in coffee, there’s still much to appreciate in the simple purchase of a drink. “The customer service isn’t focused on being nice and friendly,” says Tad Monroe, a pastor at Urban Grace Church. “Not that they aren’t. But it’s more based on giving you the best product they can. It’s an authentic feel. It’s not fake. These people are passionate about what they are doing.”
The feel of Satellite is evocative of the great boutique shops in Seattle, like Victrola Coffee and Espresso Vivace. Not surprisingly, Satellite’s owners are all transplants from that city who moved here to make Tacoma their own.
The group, all around forty, heard from friends that they could get more home for their money in Tacoma and that it isn’t a half-bad place to live, either. They wanted to start a business. That desire turned into Supernova. “We weren’t happy in Seattle. Tacoma is nicer,” says Lencioni while pacing around a barber’s chair with a razor blade in one hand and a comb in the other. “Even before we got a house we were looking for property to start a business.”
Co-owner Jana Lencioni styling a client.
Lencioni, who’s married to Hales, has been a hair stylist most of her life. As Brown is for Satellite, she’s the fire behind Supernova salon, the ringleader of the shop’s three stylists. Her brand of leadership, though, is much more laid back.
Tools of the beauty trade.
Supernova’s atmosphere, in general, is relaxed. The shop is wallpapered with edgy posters featuring bands Brown, Heathman and Hales have played in and with. It’s sometimes a band practice space and rock-concert venue. After a few minutes of watching the stylists and customers interact you quickly see that the shop is more concerned with pleasing its regulars than with giving off the hipster chic you might find in similar salons in, say, Seattle. “Everyone remembers your name, when you came in before and the style you like,” says Mary Alice, a UPS driver seated in Lencioni’s chair. “It’s personal.”
The three-chair salon.
Devotion to their customers and networking with other local businesses made Supernova a success and allowed Satellite to happen. But getting there was difficult, a real learning process. When the owners purchased the space in 2005, it was a junk shop that had to be emptied and renovated. For a time, Lencioni continued to work in Seattle while Brown converted the place into a functional business venue.
Like any new business owner, Lencioni had her doubts about whether it was all going to work out. “I was kind of afraid to leave my job,” she says, admitting that the group didn’t have much of a business plan in place before opening. “In the beginning, it was slow. We did a lot of sitting around. I cried.”
Things took a turn for the better in January 2006 when a friend, musician and tattoo artist Chris Lyon, moved from Texas to take over the tattoo side of the business from Brown. “They didn’t have much experience running a tattoo shop,” Lyon says. “I reworked the way we take care of financials, got a filing system going, kept our taxes straight and started advertising.”
Tattoo artists Dezz Cray and Chris Lyon.
Slowly, foot traffic increased. Word of mouth and ties to the community helped. In the last few years Supernova has kept a banner up in Hell’s Kitchen (“Tacoma’s Place for Kick-Ass Rock”), hosted a bad tattoos contest at Doyle’s Public House and had booths at local festivals such as Art on the Ave.
The idea to start Satellite had been kicked around since the friends moved to Tacoma. With Supernova established, it became feasible. Building commenced in spring of 2007, and, although the space had enjoyed a previous life as the Temple of the Bean, a famous high school hangout, it, too, had to be gutted and renovated. Craftsman Kevin Patrick Smith was responsible for much of the design and construction.
With only an espresso machine in hand, the owners called in favors from friends near and far. Labor and trade skills were exchanged for tattoos; credit cards were maxed out; and bank accounts emptied while Brown and Heathman traveled the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Vancouver, in search of the perfect roaster.
The answer, it turned out, was just up the road in Seattle. For all the right reasons — ethics, taste and character — Stumptown Coffee was the right choice. The company built its reputation by paying growers in the coffee belt better than Fair Trade prices (passing on costs to customers), while working hand in hand with growers to improve their farming practices and produce better products.
Stumptown coffee served here.
Stumptown is exceptionally picky about who it lets sell its product. Retailers must be socially conscious, politically progressive and willing to have their baristas trained (and periodically retrained) by Stumptown through almost college-caliber courses. “Satellite seemed like a great fit for us,” says Stumptown owner Duane Sorenson in a phone interview. “Pat and I hung out a few times and tasted coffee; he showed off his dedication. My mom, dad and sister live in Puyallup so they are frequent Satellite customers. As far as coffee goes, it’s the best around.”
With the Stumptown-Satellite partnership cemented, the rest of the shop’s offerings fell into place: baked goods and pastries made with fresh, wholesome ingredients from Corina Bakery; teas from Remedy Teas; dairy products from Happy Cow; and Coca-Cola, made with cane sugar, from Mexico. In short: nothing you have to feel bad about drinking or eating.
Satellite opened at six a.m. on November 15, 2007. With word-of-mouth promotion, local blog buzz and media attention, success came quickly. “My brother mentioned a new place that opened and it was rumored to be the best place in town,” recalls Scott Seely. “We had to check it out. It feels like a Seattle coffee shop in Tacoma. There’s just no comparison with anyplace else around.”
Most new businesses fail within the first year. Initial public reaction to Satellite has been good and sales are encouraging. Still, it’s premature to predict that the shop will become a Tacoma landmark.
There are some promising indicators, though. For starters, the scone debate got settled. Corina now supplies Satellite with scones made from Julie Rex’s recipe and they are excellent. Shop regulars are so committed, they sometimes give Satellite homemade gifts, like a custom rocket-shaped bottle opener similar to the one in the store’s logo. They bring in toys or knickknacks they find that bear the shop’s name and fit its theme.
These are little things, of course, but they show Tacomans care and are building a stake in Satellite. For people like Tad Monroe, the café has already become a fixture in their lives. “A lot of the people I see here are people I already know,” he says, “people in the arts community, people I know from hanging out at other establishments. It all connects for me.”